Politics & Policy

Why Scripps College Doesn’t Want to Hear from George Will

For the Left, free speech is just one item within a busy hierarchy of values.

The Claremont Independent confirms today that the American academy remains as benighted as ever:

A prominent conservative political pundit was uninvited from speaking at Scripps College, in a program designed to promote conservative views on campus, because of his conservative views.

Nationally syndicated columnist George Will was slated to speak at the ninth annual Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program, the mission of which is to bring speakers to campus whose political views differ from the majority of students at the all-women’s college, but had his invitation rescinded after he wrote a column about sexual assault on college campuses.

The suggestion that Will was disinvited from addressing “a program designed to promote conservative views on campus, because of his conservative views” isn’t quite right, is it? Rather, Will appears to have been disinvited because a particular view he expressed fell foul of the arbiters’ rarified tastes. “It was in the works and then it wasn’t in the works,” Will told the Independent yesterday. “They didn’t say that the column was the reason, but it was the reason.” In other words, then, the invitation was rescinded not because of who Will is per se, but because the regime decided that it was inclined to be tolerant of anybody who agreed to stay within what it considers to be appropriate bounds, but not of those who erred.

Quite how this can be reconciled with Scripps’s rhetoric is unclear. The college’s website describes the “Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs Program” — from which the initial overtures came — as having been established to bring irregular speakers to campus. Why? Because, administrators argue, being exposed to “a range of opinions about the world — especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree — leads to a better educational experience.” This sounds nice, certainly. But it is clear that Scripps doesn’t mean a bloody word of it. By disinviting Will, the program’s custodians have telegraphed their true assumptions: namely, that students will gain a “better educational experience” if they are subjected to only those other “opinions about the world” that can be squared with the existing curriculum. This being a matter of private choice and not public law, Scripps’s faculty can of course do as it wishes. But it would be nice if, for once, those who made the call realized what they were doing. Philosophically, if not legally, this decision lumps the college in with those who propose that they believe in free expression but that there are some expressions that are too hurtful or mean or bigoted to be indulged. Just as there is no point whatsoever in a nation’s having laws that protect the right of free speech if they do not also apply to the eccentric and to the disliked, there really is no virtue in a college’s offering a horizon-broadening public-affairs program that is restricted by the very same pieties that its architects are seeking to escape. Presumably, the powers-that-be at the college established the Malott initiative because they were concerned that their charges were being exposed to a narrow bracket of opinions and that they would, in consequence, emerge from the university with a stunted and incomplete worldview. What, pray, can be the purpose of this remedy if it hews to the same norms it was established to shatter?

As it happens, I suspect that the decision-makers at Scripps would be sincerely astounded to learn how fanatical they appear from the outside, for their disinvitation is likely to be less the product of intellectual insecurity and more the end result of a genuine divergence between Left and Right. As a rule, conservatives believe that the matter of free expression is extremely simple: First, you let everybody speak on equal terms, whatever they choose to say; then, you permit anybody so moved to respond; and then, possessed of a decent respect for the opinions of mankind, you let the chips fall where they may, all the while accepting that life isn’t fair and that man is fallen. The academic and cultural Left, by contrast, seems increasingly to maintain that the question of speech is a convoluted and sticky one, and that the Right’s seemingly straightforward appeals to diversity of thought and free expression are hopelessly complicated in reality by Foucauldian power dynamics, by the existence of qualitatively different types of speech (“hate” speech, “propaganda,” “corporate speech,” voices that “must be heard,” etc.), and by the disquieting potential for listeners to be in some way damaged or set off (or “triggered”) by the experience. One really cannot overstate the incompatibility of these positions. For modern conservatives, an absolute defense of free expression is a cut and dried principle — the hallmark of civilization and human liberty. But for many modern progressives — especially those in academia — unfettered speech represents just one item within a busy hierarchy of competing values; an important idea, certainly, but not an unalienable one. This, I think, explains a great deal. If you believe — as many of his critics suggested at the time — that George Will did not merely write a criticism of the alleged campus rape epidemic but that, in some way, he actually did “violence” to women, it seems clear that you wouldn’t want him on campus.

The salient question, then, has to be this: Does Scripps know that, by ensuring that its campus will remain a parochial and intellectually cramped sort of place, it is doing its students a genuine disservice? Honestly, I doubt that it does. As politically and culturally useful as it might be for critics of the college racket to imagine otherwise, the authorities almost certainly did not disinvite Will in order to prevent the free-thinking among their charges from getting the “wrong” ideas about the United States. Instead, they will have convinced themselves that they were merely curating information in a manner that most effectively benefits the whole student body. Such attitudes, alas, are no longer relegated to the fringes, but have instead made inroads into businesses, charities, and even the U.S. government. Consider how often we see spokesmen say with a straight face that their organization is “too tolerant” to tolerate eccentrics, “too diverse” to allow outliers, and “too open” to permit free debate. Remember how perplexed we were to witness Brendan Eich’s being removed from his position at Mozilla on the grounds that his opposition to gay marriage could not be expected to fit with the company’s “big, open, and messy . . . culture of openness and inclusion.” Recall the acrid guffaws that a Swarthmore student provoked earlier in the year when she explained to the press that she was angry that the college had invited Robert George to speak because “the whole idea . . . that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion” left her “bothered.” “I don’t think we should be tolerating his conservative views,” the student added, “because that dominant culture embeds these deep inequalities in our society.” Thus was exclusion justified by an appeal to inclusion, and intolerance condoned by the invocation of equality.

Impressed by the passion with which such people sell such wares, I have come to believe that they are sincere in their convictions. And yet, while a virtue in and of itself, one’s sincerity does not excuse one’s other sins. For all the elaborate apologias and tortuous self-justifications, the enemies of open expression are in practice singing the same song now as they ever were: “Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up, we don’t want you here!” That, of course, is their right, but it is not a right that can be exercised without cost. To deprive a speaker of his chance to speak is, by definition, to deprive his listeners of a chance to listen — no small crime in a school purporting to teach “liberal arts.” Today, we roll our eyes at the peculiar uniformity of the American college campus. Tomorrow, though, we should laugh, for the losers here are not George Will and the nation’s many conservatives, but instead the students of Scripps, who, thanks to the prim and delicate scolds who run their grubby, insipid little establishment, will remain cosseted in their bubble for yet another day.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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